- Talks Saturday between the NFL and referees' union don't produce a breakthrough
- The referees' union negotiator says his members "won't be back on the field" next week
- The NFL earlier told teams that replacement referees would start the regular season
The big calls in the NFL's opening week won't be made by the league's veteran referees, the referees' top negotiator said Saturday.
The NFL has so far failed to reach a labor agreement with its regular referees, and no further talks are scheduled.
The league's 32 teams received a memo Wednesday indicating that "in light of the current state of negotiations, ... we will have replacement crews on the field when the regular season begins," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
Nonetheless, talks continued -- including a meeting Saturday morning in which the two sides "discussed various potential solutions to reach a new collective bargaining agreement," NFL Referees Association lead negotiator Mike Arnold said in a statement. But there was no breakthrough.
"We are disappointed, because it means that our members will not be back on the field for week one of the regular season due to the NFL's continuing lockout," Arnold said.
The first game is Wednesday at MetLife Stadium in northern New Jersey, between the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. The other opening week games will be played the following Sunday, except for two contests Monday, September 10.
Negotiations between the league and the referees about pay and other matters have gone on and off for months. In the meantime, the NFL hired replacement referees who have been working games throughout the preseason.
"The replacements have undergone extensive training and evaluation, and have shown steady improvement during the preseason," the NFL's Aiello said earlier this week.
Some of the replacement referees' work so far has come under criticism, from their penalty calls (or lack thereof) to communication issues. The Cincinnati Bengals, on that NFL team's official Twitter feed, called out these refs earlier this week for "getting a little flag-happy."
Adam Podlesh, a punter and players' union representative for the Chicago Bears, said having replacement referees make calls during the regular season is "in the back of our minds (and) a bit of a concern."
"We just hope that these officials know the rules, know how to enforce them and can keep the game under control and keep order," Tom Coughlin, the Giants' head coach, told reporters this week.
This marks the second straight summer that the pro football league has been involved in a drawn-out labor dispute.
The league's owners locked out players on March 11, 2011, suspending the labor deal in place at the time in hopes of creating a new financial structure. Ten players, including marquee quarterbacks Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, subsequently filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league on behalf of other current and eligible NFL athletes.
The two sides engaged in a sometimes bitter and public back-and-forth over the following months. They finally agreed on a deal in late July, with only one preseason game being canceled as a result.
There were no plans then to use replacement players absent a deal, as had been done in 1987 and as will be done this year with the NFL's referees.